Ben Motter joined TDPS as Technical Director in December 2014. He comes to the department from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and has an extensive background in technical theater management. Ben sat down with TDPS to talk about his career arc, his passion for teaching and how Berkeley compares to NYC.
Like a lot of people, I started doing theater in high school, and then decided I liked it enough to continue studying theater in college. I attended the University of Michigan for Theatre Design and Technology and soon fell into a job working as the Technical Director (TD) for a small theater. The job was full-time, supervising about 10 shows a year and also running a shop. That job was basically how I paid for college; it was that or work at Starbucks! We rented theater spaces across town so we’d build the shows in our shop, then drive them across town to install. Doing that, oh, 40 or 50 times helped me cultivate certain skill sets.
Additionally, every summer I went away to do something different–work somewhere new, learn something new. One summer I was the lead technician for Six Flags Great America. Other summers included jobs as TD at Theatre West Virginia, TD at Jenny Wiley Theatre in Kentucky and Production Manager at Theater Aspen in Colorado. I also worked at a local Michigan high school; they had aging lighting equipment and needed someone to break down their equipment into parts. After that project went successfully, they asked me to stay on. Over time, I eventually helped remodel all of the high school’s performance spaces, including new lighting, sound and fly systems.
After I graduated in 2012 with a B.S. in Theatre Design and Technology it was time to leave Michigan. I started graduate studies at Boston University, which shares a shop with Huntington Theater, where I got to work with many great designers that I would not have met otherwise. I worked on David Cromer’s Our Town, Mary Zimmerman’s The Jungle Book and the out-of-town tryout of Betrayal before it moved to New York. When I decided not to continue my graduate studies, my next adventure was the Metropolitan Opera in New York City
As Technical Projects Manager for the Met at New York City’s Lincoln Center, about 60-70% of my job was technical direction and 30-40% was production management. I managed production budgets for shows, sometimes up to $4 million or $5 million per show. I generated construction drawing for the scene shop and the metal shop, sat in on rehearsals and interfaced with designers. I spent most of my time developing new productions, including a new version of The Marriage of Figaro and Two Boys. Notably, I was also there when the Met through the biggest labor dispute in their history, with a potential lockout. I was right there in the thick of it.
What drew you to UC Berkeley?
I’ve always known that I wanted to teach. I’m really passionate about theater, and especially building scenery. I’ve always been interested in investigating how things work, and constructing and deconstructing things—I got in trouble as a kid for taking things apart. I wanted to share that passion and energy with others. I had a great role model as an undergrad student: the university’s Technical Director. I was so inspired by what he gave to the students. People would come in to his classes, not sure if they liked technical theater or didn’t like it—mostly it was a requirement—and he always got them excited about making theater, making art. That really shaped how I approached this job.
Part of the appeal of this job is the Bay Area. I’m an outdoorsy person: I like to rock climb, hike, bike, kayak. Wait, I can do those things year-round? No snow or ice?! Cool! I essentially called Wil Leggett, the Production Manager, and said “Listen, you have to hire me.” And I soon as I came here to interview, I knew for sure that I was going to live in California for the rest of my life. “Well, now you have to give me the job, because I’m not leaving!” This area has the greatest combination of art, culture, climate, environment and people.
What does your job as TDPS Technical Director entail?
The main function of my job is serving as Technical Director for all departmental productions. I am also the primary instructor for THE 60: Introduction to Technical Theater and Production and THE 168: Technical Theater-Shop Practice, which is about 15 hours of labs each week. I am helping to build infrastructure and repair infrastructure, as well as support any larger building needs. Because teaching is part of what lured me here, I am actively seeking opportunities to teach more. This semester I am teaching an individual study on Structural Design for the Stage, which I would describe as an engineering course. I am also working with a student to design an independent study on Mechanical Engineering.
How are you enjoying working with students?
Most times my students are starting from ground zero. Some universities have degree programs in Technical Theater, and there the students come in with a lot of knowledge, like knowing how to weld or something. That’s not the case here. But it’s fun because we don’t have to help them unlearn bad habits or make any corrections. I have the opportunity to teach from a blank slate to some of the smartest, most intellectually gifted students in the country. It’s exciting. I teach at a very high level and I teach very fast. In half a semester, I went from having students who couldn’t tell a hammer from a screwdriver, to having a full complement of capable, very knowledgeable theater technicians.